Crowded with Genius: Edinburgh, 1745-1789

Crowded with Genius: Edinburgh, 1745-1789

by James Buchan

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In the early eighteenth century, Edinburgh was a filthy backwater town synonymous with poverty and disease. Yet by century's end, it had become the marvel of modern Europe, home to the finest minds of the day and their breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts, and economics—all of which continue to echo loudly today.


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In the early eighteenth century, Edinburgh was a filthy backwater town synonymous with poverty and disease. Yet by century's end, it had become the marvel of modern Europe, home to the finest minds of the day and their breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts, and economics—all of which continue to echo loudly today.

Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations. James Boswell produced The Life of Samuel Johnson. Alongside them, pioneers such as David Hume, Robert Burns, James Hutton, and Sir Walter Scott transformed the way we understand our perceptions and feelings, sickness and health, relations between the sexes, the natural world, and the purpose of existence.

In Crowded with Genius, James Buchan beautifully reconstructs the intimate geographic scale and boundless intellectual milieu of Enlightenment Edinburgh. With the scholarship of a historian and the elegance of a novelist, he tells the story of the triumph of this unlikely town and the men whose vision brought it into being.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In Britain this book was published last year as Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World. A rather flat title, in my view. I think Crowded with Genius better describes James Buchan's tightly packed, rich but demanding and just slightly overwhelming work of intellectual history. — Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
In a span of 50 years in the late 18th century, Edinburgh, a city of merely 40,000 inhabitants, contained some of the Enlightenment's most important thinkers, such as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, biographer James Boswell and scientist James Hutton. Buchan, a Whitbread-winning novelist and critic, brings this remarkable era to life, opening with a brief history of the failed rebellion of 1745 and the romanticism that lingered in the Scottish psyche. He also stresses the importance of the Presbyterian Church, but emphasizes that it lost much of its power over Scottish intellectuals. One such intellectual was the influential philosopher David Hume, who was attacked as a heretic but being, in his own words, "naturally of cheerful and sanguine temper," he "soon recovered the blow." A similarly sharp portrait is painted of the life and work of Adam Smith, whose work expressed the rise of the power of commercialism. Buchan also devotes some of his narrative to science, examining Edinburgh as a global center of medical education, and to literature, in which Scotsmen such as novelist Henry Mackenzie and poet Robert Burns would blaze the way for the Age of Romanticism. Throughout, Buchan writes well and does a fine job arguing the case for Edinburgh's disproportionately large impact on 18th-century intellectual history. Yet much of this material has been covered before, most recently in Arthur Herman's enjoyable How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which many readers might find more accessible on complex matters like Hume's philosophy. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 28) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Until the early 1700s, Edinburgh, Scotland, was considered a smelly backwater, mockingly known as auld reekie. After the union with England, the city became, for a short time, the epicenter of learning, contributing enormously to the age of science and reason. Men such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Hutton were only a few of the influential figures that contributed to this modern-day Athens. In addition to the huge strides made in medicine, agriculture, and economics, novelist and critic Buchan (The Persian Bride; Frozen Desire) discusses Edinburgh's cultural reawakening and its focus on building projects to boost its world-class status. He argues that the "well-established Protestant institutions" in Scotland contributed greatly to the intellectual and creative innovations that characterized Edinburgh in the 18th century, yet it was the very questioning of strict Calvinism that freed men's minds as they attempted to understand the world around them. Much is made of the philosophical underpinnings of Edinburgh's achievements, which unfortunately can make for dry and ponderous reading. This book will be of interest chiefly to serious students of Scottish history. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries with special collections in British history.-Isabel Coates, MISt, CCRA-Toronto West Tax Office, Mississauga, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively portrait of the city once called the "Athens of the north"—and for good reason. As English novelist and journalist Buchan (Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money, 1997, etc.) writes, the Edinburgh of 1745 was "inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome, and poor." Then came the Battle of Culloden Moor, which has been called the last fight of the medieval era, and the de facto annexation of Scotland by England, all of which caused Scotland's great minds to flock to the city; remake it by draining lochs, building bridges over gullies, and constructing sturdy houses and public buildings; and down a sea of coffee, tea, and whiskey while conjuring up marvelous ideas. In 1755, Diderot and company, Buchan writes, still devoted only "a single contemptuous paragraph" to the whole of Scotland, but only seven years later Voltaire was proclaiming that all the best ideas about everything "from epic poetry to gardening" were coming from the Scottish citadel. What had happened in that short span was nothing short of a Gaelic renaissance, in which philosophers such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson, poets such as James MacPherson and Robert Burns, and practical and theoretical scientists such as James Black and James Hutton were crossing disciplinary boundaries, talking with one another, and advancing new learning that quickly spread across the Western world. An Athens it may have been, but these celebrants made of Edinburgh ("a classical town rescued from the frigid by a Gothic town rescued from the grotesque," Buchan writes in a memorable turn) a kind of Sparta, too, which insisted that commerce and industry were insufficient without virtu. Whatever the case,Buchan makes a good argument for its having been a great place to be. If he's a little imprecise on how Edinburgh eventually became a vital center of European civilization, he does a nice job of describing daily life among its intellectual set, of charting their ideas, and of evoking days gone by. A readable companion to Arthur Herman's like-minded How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001).

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